Wednesday, June 8, 2011

GERALD WILSON’S WORLD

Big band leader Gerald Wilson made three albums dedicated to his favorite cities. In 2003, Mack Avenue signed Wilson.  He was already a Hall of Fame worthy bandleader, and he had enough seniority in the industry to retire, but he did nothing of the kind. Mack Avenue released Wilson’s “New York New Sound”. Back then, Mack Avenue was small, vying for respectability. Landing Wilson was a big score that paid off. 

“New York New Sound” received a Grammy nod, and Wilson became Mack Avenue’s best selling artist at the tender age of 84. In 2009, Wilson made “Detroit,” a homage to the Motor City, and Wilson’s best album for Mack Avenue.

By 2009, Mack Avenue was a household name with top jazz musicians on the roster such as Sean Jones, Kenny Garrett, Ron Blake and Christian McBride. Wilson remained the company’s ambassador, making a string of hit albums. At 92-year-old, Wilson still has the imagination and verve of a man half his age. You find that statement unbelievable? Then check out Wilson's new album “Legacy,” a nod to Chicago. "Legacy" will be available nationwide on June 21st.

With “Legacy,” Wilson shares some of the spotlight with his son Anthony Wilson and grandson Eric Otis. Wilson’s son wrote “Virgo,” and Otis wrote “September Sky”. Seems as if the elder Wilson is preparing his kin to run the big band  if he retires.

“Legacy” has two drastically different moods. First, the top half of “Legacy” has a jazz meets classical feel. Wilson’s big band performs “Theme by Igor Stravinsky,” and “Variation on a Theme by Giacomo Puccini”. Obvious nods to Wilson’s classical heroes.

“Variation,” is intricate. Wilson mix blues and classical. Plus, Wilson send the composition through two  tempo changes. Blues coexisting with classical is a novel concept. The mixture works because piano player Renee Rosnes is proficient in blues and classical music. 

Secondly, the other half of “Legacy” is a suite titled “Yes Chicago Is… (suite)". It starts with the glum movement “Jazz Mecca”. The suite ends similarly with “A Great Place to Be”. Those movements are the suites’ weak links.

But, the other movements are upbeat. Wilson put his faith in key soloists—Terrell Stafford, Ron Blake, and Gary Smulyan—to convey musically and succinctly the influence Chicago had on Wilson. They didn't let Wilson down. The soloists are accomplished jazz musicians with egos, of course, but in Wilson’s big band they mesh swimmingly.

Stafford, Blake, and Smulyan give the suite a richness that would be missing had either musician not participated. So how does “Legacy” compare to Wilson’s “New York New Sound” and “Detroit”? “Legacy” deserves a high mark, but Wilson's nod to New York and to Detroit are better.
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